Heads will roll
Marie Antoinette star Emilia Schüle and producers Claude Chelli and Stéphanie Chartreux take DQ inside the making of this eight-part historical drama, which promises to show a new side of the young Austrian princess who would become Queen of France.
Across French history, there can be few characters as iconic – or divisive – as Marie Antoinette, the Austrian princess who would become Queen and wife of King Louis XVI.
Barely 14 years old when she left Austria to marry the then-Dauphin of France, she found it difficult to adjust to the customs of monarchy when Louis ascended the throne in 1774. Yet she enjoyed unprecedented influence in the court of Versailles and became something of a fashion icon.
Marie Antoinette’s attempts to become involved in politics were met with scorn, however, as were reports of her lavish spending, and when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, her public image was in the gutter. Imprisoned in 1792, she and Louis were both executed the following year.
Countless books have charted her life in France, while her story has also been retold numerous times on screen, most notably in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, starring Kirsten Dunst. Now, a new eight-part series, also called Marie Antoinette, promises to show a different side of the young queen, from a stubborn princess navigating the rules of the French court while under pressure to continue the Bourbon line of succession, to recreating Versailles in her image: free, independent and ahead of its time. Marie Antoinette must battle her enemies in court and quash rumours that threaten to undermine her, all while maintaining her courage and dignity.
Created and written by Deborah Davis (The Favourite), the English-language series stars Emilia Schüle in the title role. Distributed by Banijay Rights, it is produced by Capa Drama, Banijay Studios France and Les Gens.
The origins of Marie Antoinette can be found in another historical drama, Versailles, on which producers Capa and Banijay collaborated for three seasons. Following that show’s international success, the two companies sought to reunite on a new story revolving around the iconic palace. Very quickly, along with French broadcaster Canal+, they decided Marie Antoinette was the obvious choice.
Bafta-winning writer Davis soon agreed to join the project as the creator and executive producer, and a research trip to the Palace of Versailles was arranged. “We were fortunate enough to have access to Marie Antoinette’s private apartments, which are not visible to the general public. This visit particularly inspired us and allowed Deborah to find the singular vision she wanted to bring for the show,” says Banijay producer Stéphanie Chartreux.
Capa’s Claude Chelli believes the producers’ collaboration with Davis was serendipitous, as their search for a writer coincided with the release of her acclaimed film The Favourite – a dark comedy starring Olivia Colman as England’s Queen Anne. “We all thought it would be great to have Deborah as the creator of the show. We contacted her and she told us that Marie Antoinette was her favourite historical figure. The rest is history.”
Once Canal+ also bought into Davis’s vision for the show, she produced eight episode outlines before she was joined by fellow writers Louise Ironside, Chloë Moss and Avril E Russell, who wrote two episodes each and constantly exchanged ideas and drafts with Davis. “It was very important for us to have female screenwriters for the story we wanted to tell,” says Chartreux.
Chelli picks up: “We wanted to portray Marie Antoinette as never before. Audiences are familiar with the Sofia Coppola film where the character was extremely vain and spoilt. Our version of the story, and Deborah Davis’s vision, is much more intimate. This Marie Antoinette is proactive and a feminist. Deborah was able to bring her unique talent of injecting vibrant modernity into the period genre.”
As for Davis’s own vision for the show, the writer says: “I want the audience to discover a 21st century girl entering a perverse and incestuous 18th century world, but instead of being cowed and forced to conform, she will turn Versailles upside down.”
When it comes to setting the scene of the period, Davis has been clear that she is a screenwriter, not a historian. “She always said that the historical period in which our story takes place was primarily a support for the story and that she’s bringing her own interpretation,” Chartreux notes. “Therefore, when we embraced this period setting, we were always careful to focus on Deborah’s specific vision.
“Deborah found the structure very quickly. She immediately thought the first season should be divided into two parts – first Marie Antoinette as Dauphine and then Marie Antoinette as Queen of France. The timeframe spans 10 years from 1770 when she arrived at Versailles to 1780 when she emerged as the triumphant Queen. This decade was perfect, as we could show how Marie Antoinette attempted to gain her independence and freedom.”
To find the show’s lead, casting directors scoured France and the UK, before widening their search across Europe. With the story spanning a decade in one season, their brief was to identify an actor who could be credible as both a teenager and a young woman – and they found her in Germany.
Schüle has plenty of experience working in period dramas, having starred in German medical series Charité and the Ku’damm trilogy, which follows three sisters growing up in Berlin in the 1950s and 60s. But making Marie Antoinette was “the most wonderful, adventurous and challenging time of my life,” she says. “It was very dreamlike – I was living in Paris, I was filming in chateaus. My first filming day was in Versailles and I was suffering in corsets. I was part of an amazing cast and I got to play this fantastic and brilliant character that we are going to show in such a different light.
“People see Marie Antoinette as a spender and as a luxury addict, but she’s so much more than that. We’re going to show her as a very modern and emancipated woman who always fought to protect her privacy and her freedom. She was fighting for equality, her individuality, for her personal freedom. I’m happy we’re going to correct the light on her a little bit.”
Schüle replied to a casting call for the role and recorded a self-taped audition, with a second audition then taking place over Zoom. After a four-week wait, she was told she had won the part. The prospect of playing Marie Antoinette in a series created by Davis was one she was never going to turn down. “You just say yes – but I read the first episode before I did the self-tape and it’s just so brilliant,” Schüle says. “Deborah made a decision to distance the narrative from what we already know about Marie Antoinette, and instead we are going to follow her very subjective experience of what it’s like for a 14-year-old girl to leave her mum, her home and her country. The first episode just reads like a nightmare, and I thought it was brilliant.”
In the show’s debut season – planned to be the first of many – viewers will see Marie arrive in France and follow her journey through marriage and her struggle to conceive an heir. “That was quite difficult because her husband didn’t speak to her, didn’t look at her and it took them seven years to consummate their marriage,” says Schüle. “This season is just going to show how difficult life was for her and how she had to bear that humiliation in Versailles and all the courts in Europe. The first season will show her slowly evolving relationship with her husband and also focus on how hostile her environment was and how she was constantly being observed and judged. There were always forces working against her.”
Schüle watched documentaries and read books about Marie Antoinette as part of her preparation for the role, but knew that she had to let go of her own preconceived ideas about the historical figure and those she had read ahead of filming. “There are so many perspectives of her and in the series we are opening up a new take on her. I knew I had to focus on my intuition and what Deborah has written and create my own Marie Antoinette,” she says.
When she landed the part, Schüle’s experience on period dramas meant her thoughts immediately turned to the corsets she would have to wear. “I was like, ‘Oh gosh, this is going to be really tough,’ because I remembered from Charité that I hated corsets. But I was excited, obviously. I get to play Marie and I was looking forward to the dresses and the hair. It was all very surreal. I was impatient when we started filming because her hair was very small. As we were progressing through filming, I was looking forward to the hair getting higher and higher.”
Schüle says her Marie Antoinette is “very emotional,” with Chartreaux adding: “The main idea of the show is to be in Marie Antoinette’s head and to experience what she’s feeling. Emilia immediately understood this dimension. She has managed to convey all the emotions the character feels. It was a pure joy to work with Emilia. She was very rigorous and deeply committed to the part.”
The show’s visual style then mirrored Davis’s vision to tell the story from Marie’s perspective. “With this, we had to shy away from the classical way of filming historical dramas, which is to use long traveling shots and crane moves,” Chelli says. “We therefore decided to shoot mostly handheld to be close to the character.”
Filming for the series took place in real historical locations including the Palace of Versailles itself and its famous Hall of Mirrors, plus Vaux-le-Vicomte, Lésigny and Voisins. All the private apartments featured in the series were built at studios in Bry-sur-Marne, on the outskirts of Paris.
“It was beautiful to film in all these real chateaus,” says Schüle, who would spend two-and-a-half hours each day in hair, make-up and wardrobe prep across the six-month shoot. “It was definitely a very special French experience for me, living in Paris and hanging out in the suburbs in these beautiful places. It was funny because I really got used to it. In the first few months, we would get so excited that it was ‘Versailles day,’ but at some point it became just another day.”
Though she is now learning French, Schüle says she felt anxious about the language barrier when she first flew to Paris for her costume fittings, as her hair and make-up artists didn’t speak English. “They were talking French and I was just sitting there, feeling really scared and wondering what filming would be like over such a long time,” she recalls. “I didn’t speak any French – that’s why I’m learning it now – and on set, sometimes instead of saying ‘action’ in English, they would say it in French, so at first I didn’t even realise we were filming. That was a bit challenging but I loved it. Now I understand so much more about what’s going on.”
The actor also had to practice her English. “Before the show, I had been speaking American English all my life, so I had to re-learn it,” she says. “That was another challenge.”
When the show debuts on Canal+ in France – it has also been bought by BBC Two in the UK and BBC First in Australia – Schüle says it won’t depict the Marie Antoinette many viewers will be expecting. “It will show an entirely new view of her and we will experience Versailles for the first time as a very dark, manipulative and even misogynistic place,” says the actor, who is now moving to London to attend film school. “We will see this world through Marie Antoinette’s 21st century eyes. We will experience her as a very modern woman. It’s going to be an entirely new take on her and it’s going to be very surprising, interesting and moving. We will really see her as a human being fighting for her dignity. She’s looking for a role in life, and this has come up short in past portrayals.”
Chelli adds: “Deborah Davis is an historian herself and has read more than 150 books on the period, and this version of Marie Antoinette reflects her vision. This, coupled with the grand scale of the locations and costumes, will bring audiences a Marie Antoinette they’ve never seen before.”